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How to Assign Busy Work to Employees

David has over 15 years of supervisory experience and has extensive knowledge of how to handle personnel issues across many areas.

Having a large amount of files to organize can be a great type of busy work, but can also be boring to do.

Having a large amount of files to organize can be a great type of busy work, but can also be boring to do.

As a supervisor there are times you may need to assign busy work to employees. So what exactly is busy work? Basically, it's work meant to keep an employee busy which may not have a direct impact to the organization. However, there is a way that busy work can prove to be beneficial to the employee and organization, even if it's meant to fill time with what is perceived to be pointless work.

This article covers why busy work can be beneficial, the potential pitfalls, and types of busy work. I also go into my own personal experience with busy work.

The worst thing we can do is to do nothing.

— Brad Henry

The Pros of Busy Work

There are multiple benefits when assigning an employee busy work:

  1. Can free you up for other, more important matters. Basically, if you need to be left alone to get a critical project done the employee can't really help with, the busy work may keep them distracted for you to get the work you need done.
  2. May improve the knowledge or skills of an employee. This can be the opportunity to improve the abilities of the employee, even if it's a rudimentary skill. The employee may even learn something new that could benefit the organization in the future.
  3. A possible hidden problem or better way of doing things may be discovered. While doing the work, the employee see a problem and bring it to your attention, or, they find there is a better way to accomplish another task.
  4. The employee is a problem employee. This could be someone who has moved between different departments, isn't capable of their job but you are forced to keep them, or they are simply lazy. Busy work can keep them busy with something, but it can be of little consequence if they get it done or not. Is this fair? No, but sometimes it's needed.
There is a huge variety of busy work that can be assigned to an employee.

There is a huge variety of busy work that can be assigned to an employee.

The Cons of Busy Work

There are negatives you need to consider when you assign an employee busy work:

  1. The employee may feel undervalued. If the employee is stuck doing grunt work that has no real benefit, they may feel like they aren't being utilized to the full extent of their abilities. They may lose interest in their job, and could even leave because of it.
  2. It may show to your organization that the position may not be needed. If the higher-ups observe that only busy work is being assigned to employees, they may feel like that those positions aren't needed and seek to transfer or eliminate the positions.
  3. The busy work may end up being a standard procedure. Depending on the task, it may end up being turned into a standard procedure. This could be good if it shows to be a benefit, but it can very well be just an added task which has no benefit. People just keep doing it because, "it's always been done this way".

Types of Busy Work

So what kind of busy work do you assign to your employee? Well that all depends on the type of employee you are dealing with and what you wish to accomplish, even though it's just work to keep the employee busy. Below are a few high-level ideas.

  1. Training. One of the best ways to fill an employee's time is to have them participate in some training. Online training, such as through LinkedIn Learning, can be great. This can be used to build upon existing skills, or new skills if the employee wishes to grow into another position. The pitfall to this is the employee may experience burnout, so spread out the training sessions they do.
  2. Meetings. Have the individual attending meetings they don't normally attend, even if they have no feedback whatsoever. They can take notes and report back what they learned. They may even have some feedback that others had not considered.
  3. Research. Have the employee research something that may benefit the organization in the future, or, research a failed project to see what their take is on why it failed.
  4. Organize. Doesn't matter if it's materials in a warehouse, a filing cabinet, or files on a database. There is always organization that needs to be done, which can be done as busy work.
  5. Update documents. This could be updating forms, cleaning up reports, or reformatting a policy. It may not be needed, but can clean up something that may not have been updated in awhile. In fact, anything with an "effective" or "updated" date could be updated to make it more current.
  6. Ask them for ideas. You can turn this back on the employee. Ask them what tasks they have been wanting to do in their free time, no matter how outside of the box it is. It can be a great way to fulfill what they want while giving them something to do at the same time.

The table below gives more specific types of busy work an employee can do, if you are in need of more specific ideas.

Different Types of Busy Work

These are just some of the types of busy work that can be assigned to an employee. As I think of more, I'll add them to the list.

Scan Documents

Proofread Documents

Convert PDFs to Editable Documents

Research Current Events Applicable to the Organization

Organize Office Supplies

Monitor Social Media Presence of Organization

Contact Customers to Check-In

Verify Contact Information

Shadow Other Employees

Attend Webinars

Attend Meetings in Other Sections

Cold Calls

Clean the Office

Take a College Course on Company Time

Train Other Employees

Experiences with Busy Work

I have had several experiences with busy work, both good and bad, which I have shared below.

  • During the COVID-19 outbreak, all employees were directed to work from home. My staff didn't have many duties to perform from home, however, it was a great opportunity for the employee to take some online training in an area they were interested in. We had talked about their aspirations just weeks prior, so this was the perfect opportunity to train in that area even if it didn't apply to their current position.
  • An employee could no longer perform the role they were assigned, so they were assigned to another area with the primary duty of scanning documents. While it wasn't a high priority and was clearly busy work, the employee needed to be trained in it and had some difficulty doing it. However, it was within their job duties and in time, they proved to grow into that role. It gave them work to do and there was a benefit to the organization in the end.
  • When I came in as a supervisor to an area I previously worked, some work being done was an established standard process, even though it wasn't when I last worked there. However, it was obviously done as busy work just to say something was being done. Day one I discontinued the process, despite the irritation of employees who basically implied that's how it was always done. However, discontinuing the busy work had no negative impact to the organization.
In the end, make sure not to overload employees with too much busy work that they can't do their regular assigned duties.

In the end, make sure not to overload employees with too much busy work that they can't do their regular assigned duties.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 David Livermore